When dystopia begins to feel benign

Parvati Sharma | Updated on November 08, 2019

Go up in smoke: ‘I wondered what Jahangir and his sheep-based AQI would have made of Delhi’ - Sushil Kumar Verma   -  The Hindu

No amount of dystopic literature can really prepare you for the truth, which proves to be more menacing than fiction

Some four centuries ago, the emperor Jahangir arrived in Ahmedabad and was bitterly disappointed. He had heard great things of the city; instead, he found a “dust heap” with “poisonous” air. So annoyed was the emperor, he wanted to rename the city, but couldn’t decide what epithet to use. “I have already called Ahmedabad ‘Gardabad’ [Dustburg],” he wrote. “Now I don’t know whether to call it Samumistan [land of the pestilential wind], Bimaristan [land of the ill], Zaqumzar [thorn patch], or Jahannamabad [hell-ville].”

Ever keen to place his hypotheses on a scientific footing, Jahangir ordered an experiment. Two sheep were skinned and hung up, one in Ahmedabad, the other 1000-odd kilometres east in Mahmudabad. Indeed, he was proven right: The first sheep began to rot in eight hours, the second lasted 14.

Driving home from Kumaon two days after Deepavali, I wondered what Jahangir and his sheep-based AQI would have made of Delhi. At Moradabad, it was as if a curtain of smoke had fallen before me; the air grew more dense with every passing kilometre; Ghaziabad emerged ghostly from filthy white air — even live sheep might not last very long in it. It was like driving into the set of a dystopic science-fiction film.

I shouldn’t complain; dystopia is a favourite genre of mine. In my adolescence, I even thought there might be something quite liberating about an apocalypse. I imagined it in daydreams, leaping nimbly over rubble through the war fields; a lone survivor or part of a resistance, braving contraband across the lines. Like most fantasies, this one, too, was more ordinary than I realised.

Susan Sontag has a wonderful essay called The imagination of disaster, in which she points out the “vast amount of wishful thinking in science fiction films... Again and again, one detects the hunger for a ‘good war’, which poses no moral problems, admits of no moral qualifications.”

That is, of course, the great attraction of dystopian fiction: you know what the right side is, and you’re on it. And it’s worthwhile, sometimes, to have the right side defined. Two of the earliest dystopian novels I read were by a children’s writer called Nicholas Fisk — Grinny and You Remember Me — about aliens out to brainwash the world until defeated by two child protagonists. The second book was particularly powerful, the alien in it a beautiful demagogue, preaching ‘Decency, Discipline, Dedication’, creating mobs out of men. Children, hemmed in by an adult world that rarely explains itself, are naturally anti-authoritarian — in Fisk’s books only children are unaffected by the alien brainwash; and in the regimented adult world most of us grow up into, even the dimmest memory of resistance is worthwhile.

Following the rules can have disastrous consequences, after all. In Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, it’s the ordinary days, the bits and pieces of slightly alarming news that combust, one fine day, into the nightmarish, theocratic Republic of Gilead. Atwood’s much-acclaimed novel rings with the urgent warning of dystopian fiction: watch out, your world can change quicker than you think. Unfortunately, its sequel and half-a-Booker-winner, The Testaments — to which I was greatly looking forward — embodies how the genre can also slip into a rather more relaxed wallowing.

Here, it is not so much that the novel cries watch out! as it enjoins us to watch on. The horror is still there, of course, yet tinged with a kind of voyeurism — the excruciating details of torture and subjugation that create Gilead’s passive population, what Sontag might have described as “the titillation of fear and aversion [that] makes it possible for... cruelty to be enjoyed”. We see how Gilead came to be, yet feel no compulsion to act or think — only to turn the page.

It seems counter-intuitive to argue that in reading dystopian literature we also numb ourselves to its truth, even when — maybe particularly when — these truths are most acutely expressed. The philosopher George Steiner, however, makes this argument in Postscript, an essay in which he examines what it means to write about that most fertile of dystopian subjects, the Holocaust. When, writes Steiner, the horror of the Holocaust is truthfully and skilfully described, it “becomes more graphic, more terribly defined, but also has a more acceptable, conventional lodging in the imagination. We believe; yet do not believe intolerably, for we draw breath at the recognition of a literary device, of a stylistic stroke...” In fact, that is, “the aesthetic makes endurable” a horror that is otherwise beyond description and despair.

I drove in to Delhi through white smoke and snarls of rush-hour traffic, the city hard at work in the haze, rubbing at the itch in its eyes. The next morning, the front page of my newspaper told me that a university wants armed CISF personnel on campus, that renewable power companies can’t pay back their loans, that far-right fascists are offering to mediate in Kashmir.

All the dystopian fiction I’ve read should have prepared me for this; I should have felt energised, resistant. Instead, all I felt was a terrifying, inchoate sense of insignificance. Almost, you might say, like a sheep that senses an ill-wind.

Parvati Sharma   -  BLink


Parvati Sharma is a Delhi-based writer and the author, most recently, of Jahangir: An Intimate Portrait of a Great Mughal

Published on November 08, 2019

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